Why Do We Do This to Ourselves?

agony of defeat 99/365
Good question! (Photo credit: Marcy Leigh)

Why do I do this to myself?

I don’t think I know a single runner who hasn’t asked herself this question at some point during her running career. For all the post-PR elation and the super fun group runs, there are many low points during training and racing that make us question our sanity for choosing to allocate our precious time to the endeavor of getting faster.

I am most definitely one of those people.  Even I, the founder and editor-in-chief of this very site dedicated to all things competitive women’s running, sometimes find myself wondering why is it that I do this to myself.  In fact, I recently went through what I call my running existential crisis, during which I struggled with this question for an entire year.

I want to share my story with you and I’d love to hear how you answer this question for yourself.

Why do I do this to myself?

Read on.

In 2013, I don’t think a day went by when I didn’t wonder if I had it in me to return to serious training. I just had my third baby in four years. I had heart surgery at the end of January 2013. I struggled with debilitating back pain all summer and by the end of the fall finally figured out it was a huge separation in my abs that I needed to fix. One high hurdle after the other on top of the already huge one of being a mom to young kids.

And it’s not like my running is going to help my kids earn perfect scores on the SATs or punch my ticket to the Olympics or cure cancer. At my lowest lows with running, it feels so selfish and silly – like I’m this almost middle-aged woman running around like a kid – and for what? So other people will be impressed with my race times? So I can have some objective proof of my value as a human being?

Yes, I went through a running existential crisis.  But surprisingly, going through this was exactly what I needed to feel renewed and ready to go back after my big dream goals.

In my darkest moments, I realized that much of what I had done with running in the past was about other people. I was goal-driven in that I was striving for times I felt would be impressive. Sure, those times would be impressive to me, but I think even more importantly to my old self, those times would impress others. I rarely achieved those times, mind you. There’s so much more pressure to achieve goals when we’re doing it for others than when we enjoy the process. But even if you try to enjoy the process for the sole purpose of achieving goals, that won’t work either. To be the best you can be, you have to authentically enjoy the process – period. Aha!

Why do I do this to myself?

Heck yeah it does! For me, it’s the key to my happiness in running and life. (Photo credit: elizabethdunn)

I realized the real question I needed to ask myself was this:

Do I really enjoy training and racing, such that it’s worth the time and effort and sacrifices to do it? 

I realized that if I was doing this to impress other people than it wasn’t worth going back to serious training and that I should kiss my big dream goals good-bye. Doing this to affect others’ opinions of me was pointless and certainly not worth the sacrifices. I might as well have devoted myself to stamp collecting instead.

But I am back. I chose to do this to myself again because when I stripped down and took away what anyone else thought about me, I felt free and training with my friends and pushing my mental and physical limits sounded like the most fun ever.

I became excited to discover what training could be like if I just immersed myself in the process and let my fitness fall where it may. What if, instead of worrying about splits every run, I worked to do my best.  Old goals: hit the paces! New goals: try to hit the paces and if they don’t happen keep fighting for my best, whatever it is. Old me would quit in frustration if I couldn’t hit a split. The new me celebrates fighting through a slow workout and completing it no matter how embarrassing the times. The old me would freak out and fear that I would never get to where I want to go with running if I had one bad workout. The new me enjoys plugging along and seeing the slight improvements week-to-week and has faith that it’s just a matter of time. For real, it doesn’t matter if I PR in 2 months or 6 months or a year. It will happen. I just need to let go and enjoy the journey.

My existential running crisis of 2013 is precisely the reason that I chose to do this to myself again. I’m not sure I would have had the mental resolve to handle the comeback process if I hadn’t gone through it, and it made me so much stronger and gave me a dose of much-needed perspective. While I’m not out there curing cancer, training to be a better runner makes me a better person. Plus, when you quit caring what other people think, it’s a lot more fun.

So tell me, why do you do this to yourself? 

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. Great post that certainly describes thoughts/feelings I’ve had many times about my running. I do it for so many reasons: because most of the time I love it, because I think it’s a good example for my kids to have a fit, running mom, because it has great benefits for my health and physical well-being. But also because it doesn’t come easily for me. Instant gratification is not so hard to come by for most things, but not so with running and this makes even the small rewards that much more satisfying.

    1. Thanks! When I was writing this post I thought about how most of us seem to at least sense that running makes us better people. In fact, it seems, every time we ask a COTW winner why she runs, her answer is almost always something along those lines! On paper it seems like a selfish endeavor and in some ways it is, just like all hobbies and self-care are, I suppose. But running actually does make us better people – me anyway. This post discusses just one of so many examples of how struggling with a difficulty I was experiencing with running helped me identify an issue I struggled with in the rest of my life. Running is cheaper than therapy – another cliche! But it doesn’t just create a temporary happy feeling, it’s actually a platform to experiment with new attitudes and a means of discovering deep-seated beliefs that are holding us back in life. Ahh, I could go on 🙂

      1. Yes, I agree running makes me a better person. I often get exasperated and frustrated trying to get the whole family (husband, 2 & 4 year old daughters) out the door in the mornings that I work. Today I went for a run before everyone else woke up and wasn’t at all bothered by all the drama that the little ones can create some days. I suspect a direct link between these two things! I arrived at the office this morning feeling refreshed and without any mommy guilt for having lost my cool. I’m also just starting to become interested in racing again post-babies and although I haven’t clearly identified any goals, I have reached the point of just wanting to get out there and porticipate, as opposed to flat out not wanting to race because my times will definitely be slower then a few years ago.
        Love, love, love this website and all the fabulous ladies who contribute!

        1. Oh the “losing my cool” mommy guilt – had that many times!!! I love early a.m. runs for that precise reason. I am much more together the rest of the day. Yeah for getting back on the training and racing pony!

          PS I don’t have any concrete race goals right now either. I’ve made myself some training goals instead (e.g. put in a consistent 6 months of training) and it’s taken a lot of pressure off. Good luck!!!

  2. We can’t dictate our fitness or race times unless we’re willing to knowingly undershoot. But, we can do the work – and love the doing – letting the chips fall where they may. As my tagline says, “Pace sera sera.” Glad you’re back!

    1. After reading more about your background, accomplishments, age and goals, I would love to read your blog. (even if you don’t update it soon) Would you share the address?

  3. Thanks for your very timely post! I have really been struggling since right before Boston. Had an awful race and haven’t felt well running for about 2 months. I am struggling with hitting paces anything sub 7:30 and not feeling dizzy and out of breath. It really had me down, but then I’ve had to realize that I can’t keep looking back and can only look forward. My 40 min 10Ks are likely over, but I can still run and am learning to feel grateful because of it. Plus, I was running those times when I wasn’t doing triathlons–and that really affects your speed.

    I also have to feel grateful that I am able to run because so many people can’t or won’t for many reasons. And, 7:30 ain’t that bad, right? So now, I find small victories, like today, when I was able to go 6×90 seconds at sub 7:00 pace and feel good for the first time in weeks when trying to go that pace. Yeah it was on a treadmill, and yeah it wasn’t for very long with rest in between, but I’m taking the small victories when I can. The increase in iron (particularly liquid iron) I think is helping. I’m looking forward now! Thanks!

  4. I ask myself this question just about every single time I line up at the start of a race or every time I start a hard tempo, track, or training run. I know I do this because I am a passionate person and I know you are too, Salty. Running is my passion that weaves through every facet of my life. Without it I would be off balance. I am a better Mom, wife, friend, daughter, teacher, etc. for it. When I was injured this past year (down 12 weeks with a pelvic stress fracture) it was a very dark time for me. It was hard to see my friends run and PR at a marathon I should have ran and my other friends train for their upcoming races. However, it was a valuable lesson for me in that I will never take my body and this sport for granted. I promised myself that I will never get too wrapped up in a goal time, that I drive my body so hard to an injury. I am currently pregnant with #5 and although I am slightly jealous (just a bit) of my friends who are crushing their race times and getting PR’s in just about every race they run, I know my time will come. I am lucky to be able to run through my pregnancy and I feel so empowered by it. I know that being out there with my bump inspires other people…this is why I do this. I still get nervous at 5k’s, even though I know I won’t place. I just LOVE that nervous energy. I love setting a goal and meeting it. This is what drives me. This is my life. This is my passion.

  5. I love running — even on the rough days! But like many others, I get caught up in that “more, better, faster” trap and end up injured or disappointed as a result. Those are the times when I always ask “why do I do this to myself?” and contemplate quitting the sport altogether. The agony of defeat is real, even for us amateurs!

    Last year I was so obsessed with PRing at various distances that I was left burnt out with a slew of minor injuries. This year, I’m trying to take a different attitude. I signed up for a trail marathon in September with a goal of just finishing, basically to keep myself from chasing PRs in the shorter distances. I ran two half-marathons this spring completely watchless. I’m running slower and easier, foregoing speedwork and tempo runs, and running more trails (although a major trail wipeout last week had me on the DL for 4 days). I know people call this style of running “junk miles,” but I think it’s what I need if I want to continue to enjoy the sport.

  6. Great post. I’ve been asking myself that same question. I’m 40 and just had our 11th baby 4 months ago. the running is still hard. I’m carrying 25 extra pounds and slower than ever. Why? Why do I keep doing it? I’m hopeful I’ll start to enjoy it again. That I’ll regain my fitness. And I think having my own interest and taking care of my body are great examples for my children.

    1. Hold on, I need to make sure I read that right…did you mean to type 11th as in ELEVENTH, or was it a fancy 2 (as in TWO)? If that was not a typo, Susan, you may be the most amazing person ever to have put shoe to pavement. I make so many excuses for not running that revolve around my 2, er wait…Roman Numeral II…kids, that I can’t imagine how together you have to be to get out the door. Hats off to you, supermom!